Affirmative Action on the Elite College Campus

Affirmative Action on the Elite College Campus

Last week, just about the time that The New York Times broke the news that the U.S. Department of Justice is preparing to investigate race-based admissions at colleges and universities, I finished the book King Leopold’s Ghost. It tells the ghastly true story of how Belgium’s king raped and exploited the African Congo and killed about 10 million Congolese, not to mention the many that were cruelly mutilated.

(Image: iStock/vm)


What struck me was the way Europeans justified their savage, inhuman treatment of Africans, characterizing them as lazy and stupid.

It’s a haunting tale that everyone should read—but as I read online responses to the news about the plans of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, I marveled that affirmative action detractors used a narrative similar to that of the Europeans in late 19th-century Congo. Many on Twitter seemed to equate affirmative action policies with incompetence, as if the policy admits unqualified students of color to selective institutions where they don’t belong.

I contacted the Education Trust to see if there is any data to support that position: that unqualified black students are being admitted to schools and qualified white students are being rejected. I spoke with Wil Del Pilar, vice president of Higher Education Policy & Practice; Tiffany Jones, director of Higher Education Policy; and Andrew Nichols, director of Higher Education Research at the Education Trust.

Del Pilar was unequivocal: “There is no data supporting the assertion that white students are underrepresented at the most selective institutions,” he told me. “The data is a counter-narrative to that.”

Del Pilar explained that even under current law, black students make up only 5.2% of the student body at public flagships, and Latino students make up 8.9%. A better question, he said, than asking about white underrepresentation is, why aren’t more black students being admitted to public flagships?

Nichols raised the salient point that the assumption is that black students aren’t qualified. But what does it mean to be “qualified”? It is true that the vast majority of black students attend underperforming K-12 schools; however, lack of preparation doesn’t mean lack of ability.

But Nichols said the default thinking is “‘the black student has my seat.’ Maybe it’s another white student that has your seat—but no one thinks that way because of stereotypes about people and their worth and value.” It’s King Leopold in the Congo all over again.

In Sunday’s Times, an opinion piece by Carol Anderson, a professor of African American studies at Emory University, says that essential to a “narrative of affirmative action as theft of white resources— my college acceptance, my job—is the notion of ‘merit,’ where whites have it but others don’t.”

Anderson also notes that in the affirmative action case of Abigail Fisher, her lawyers ignored the number of white students who’d been admitted to UT-Austin whose scores were lower than Fisher’s—and the number of black and Latino students whose scores were higher.

Jones raised the point that merit can’t be captured in an SAT score. “High school GPA is a better indicator of student success than standardized test scores,” she said.

She also noted that most black and Latino students don’t even attend selective institutions. “We’re having a big conversation about a relatively small group of selective colleges when the majority of college students go to moderately selective schools or open access institutions.”

Del Pilar provided some stats: “Half of all black students and 53% of Latino students attend schools with very low or no admissions criteria—often community colleges or for-profit institutions.” According to Slate, the most prestigious schools educate only about 6% of all college students.

“This is such a small part of the conversation when you think of the postsecondary footprint,” Del Pilar continued. “We’re advocating greater access for poor students and African American and Latino students,” he said.

Of course, these are the schools that count. Access is critical, since attending a selective school increases a student’s chance of graduating. Nichols also pointed out that acceptance to such schools is like winning the lottery, since our country’s leadership—in business, finance, politics, you name it—tends to flow from those schools.

The affirmative action conversation has shifted too, since, the news first broke. You’ve probably read how Asian American students are suing Harvard over race-based admissions. You’d be only half right.

Just the way he found Abigail Fisher to be a front for the purposes of those who want to dismantle any feeble attempts our society has at equity, Edward Blum is also behind this wretched lawsuit. Blum is an “anti-affirmative action crusader” and the executive director of Project on Fair Representation.

Don’t be fooled by those innocuous sounding words. Blum sought out those Asian students, and he’s using the classic “divide and conquer” strategy to pit one racial minority in the U.S. against another. I can only hope that Asian students are smart enough to see through Blum’s ultimately self-serving, race-baiting agenda.

There’s an important piece here that explains why Asian Americans should support affirmative action—although, as Slate reports, the policy has largely disappeared from higher ed. Only the most selective colleges still consider race in admissions.